Scott McKenzie’s “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” was a sham from the beginning.
It was written and performed by two Virginians, and promoted by a guy from Los Angeles, to get people to come to his music festival in Monterey. The single was complicit in turning a wonderful counterculture scene in 1967 into a crisis.
For decades any San Francisco critic of merit has panned the song. Then-Chronicle music critic Joel Selvin called it “one of the more gloriously insipid songs of the hippie era” and a “classic bit of Top 40 hippie drivel.”
But in a spectacular series of musical events over the past decade, modern San Francisco artists across several genres have somehow reclaimed this song for the people — most recently as a haunting ballad of the displaced in the film “The Last Black Man in San Francisco.”
Here are the five most notable versions of “San Francisco,” ranked from worst to best, arranged to tell the story of the song’s rise from the dead.
(Please purchase the last three on your favorite streaming service, after you listen for free here on YouTube.)
5. Scott McKenzie
Photo: Worth / Associated Press 1967
Image 1 5
McKenzie’s “San Francisco” is at best a trifle and at worst an abomination, arguably a major catalyst for the flooding of San Francisco in 1967 with thousands of hopeful-turned-hopeless youth. Imagine if in the book “The Grapes of Wrath,” the Joads were given their false promises for a better life in California by a hit song on the radio. It would sound a lot like “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair).”
McKenzie and John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas assembled solid musicians and wrote a hook, but there’s little soul and no authenticity in the too-earnest crooning. No true San Franciscan has ever put this version on a mix tape, even to be ironic. It would be like serving Rice-A-Roni to out-of-town guests coming to your Potrero Hill Thanksgiving.
4. Petula Clark
Clark’s version, quickly recorded and released a few months after McKenzie’s, has its own quirks. The singer oddly enunciates “you are” in the “If you’re going to San Francisco” line, making her sound like a narc. If anything, her version is even more earnest than McKenzie’s, and thus more disconnected from the actual counterculture scene. This is easily the worst version of “San Francisco” to listen to while smoking a sativa-dominant strain of marijuana.
But Clark’s voice is clearer and stronger than McKenzie’s. And the superior arrangement of the song, with jaunty bells and a haunting horn section, shows the potential of the tune to break free from the syrupy lounge-act rock of its origins. There’s some incremental progress here.
3. Me First and the Gimme Gimmes
The San Francisco punk rock cover band effectively performed an exorcism in 2009, recording a snarling double- and triple-time reconstruction of the material and redefining the song as a mosh pit over the Summer of Love’s grave.
At the same time, “San Francisco” became even more melodic, with Me First members Fat Mike, Joey Cape and Spike Slawson harmonizing during a chorus that is legitimately uplifting. While making gentle fun of the song, they gave it new life. They also deviate from the original arrangement, with new lyrics (a reference to San Francisco punk/hardcore institution Stinky’s Peepshow) and more guitar. An important breakthrough.
2. San Quinn, with Boo Banga & Big Rich
Recorded as “S.F. Anthem” in 2008, the track samples McKenzie’s vocals, adding three new verses by city rappers San Quinn, Boo Banga and Big Rich. Instead of a group of outsiders making up a fake San Francisco, these San Francisco natives offer a sincere, warts-and-all and ultimately triumphant tour of their city.
The final few bars from the Fillmore District’s San Quinn begin by honoring three dead artists (including two members of Hunters Point legends RBL Posse) and ends with an optimistic outlook:
“Cougnut, Mr. C, Hitman RIP/Much love from the SFC
Handle bricks in the back of Candlestick/House in Twin Peaks view panoramic
Still with the cannon, 40, 50 caliber/Five-time champion destroy any challenger
Hit like Barry, score like Jerry/Still right here Fillmore to marry”
1. Emile Mosseri, Daniel Herskedal and Joe Talbot (featuring Michael Marshall) from the “Last Black Man in San Francisco” soundtrack
One of the most moving moments in recent San Francisco cinema occurred at the Castro Theatre premiere of “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” in May, when composer Emile Mosseri rose up on the pipe organ, Daniel Herskedal led a tuba chorus and Michael Marshall reclaimed this song for San Francisco.
“San Francisco” appears in the Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails movie, performed by Marshall as a street musician. The vocalist, best known for signing the chorus on the all-time Bay Area classic “I Got 5 On It,” is an authentic Bay Area musician in all the ways Scott McKenzie wasn’t. Mosseri’s entire score is a masterpiece.
Hopefully, a new generation accepts this track as their own. Much like the original, it sounds like both a eulogy and a battle cry. Except this version is 100% genuine. More than 50 years later, the city has a “San Francisco” for San Francisco.